Ken Grant reviews Chauncey Hare's Protest Photographs (from issue 27 of 8 Magazine).
In a recent radio interview, a Detroit schoolteacher spoke of her wonder at seeing a return to prairie for many acres of former urban space in her city. Whole communities, originally formed after a mass migration from the South towards the car plants and associated industries in the north of America, had lived through the Motor City era and found themselves surplus and disoriented after years of economic attrition. As one, they had to rethink how they might continue their lives and had eventually turned towards each other in co-operation, to grow orchards and farmland within the crumbling industrial landscape that had once been dominated by their provider and master.
Such a rethinking of roles always seems to come at points of crisis, when the dominance of figure industries no longer seem adequate, correct or viable. It brings a necessary departure towards a more uncertain but hopeful and fulfilling way to live. I am mindful of such a crisis (albeit a very singular one) and the shadow of the industry that encouraged it, as I move through the considerable volume of photographs that fittingly returns Chauncey Hare’s work to its place among the most important American photographic projects of the last century.
Over nearly 400 pages, Protest Photographs draws on a small number of photographs from Hare’s 1978 Aperture book Interior America and its 1984 follow-up This Was Corporate America and contextualises them among many previously unpublished pictures now held as an archive that the photographer offered the University of Berkeley, California in 1999. If Berkeley had rejected the photographer’s approach, it seems very possible that the work would have been destroyed at the photographer’s own instruction, closing a career that in reality had drawn to a halt in the 1980s, when Hare stopped photographing to retrain and begin working as an adviser, counsellor and therapist to workers and their families.
The source of the ultimate dislocation that took Hare away from the world of photography is an undercurrent in the narratives that open this book. Instead of another polite appraisal, the kind that primes so many photography books, the photographer again deploys the strategy that so distinguished Interior America – using the early pages to unpack his life in open, earnest paragraphs. These personal statements are articulate, intimate and moving, building a foundation for pictures that – despite such an unguarded commentary – flow singularly across each right hand page in a structure as regular and predictable as a working life. Looking at each picture, it becomes impossible to dismiss the emotional crises that shaped, implored and ultimately stopped Hare’s progress as a photographer. Whether hereditary (Hare’s father gained a promotion that took him away from his Irish Appalachian roots, towards later years of depression and disaffection) or learned, across the 29 years Hare worked as an engineer, the act of photography is, before everything, a channel for personal and political application – for a protest that is as emotionally open as any I have understood in the medium.
Working as an employee of Standard Oil and later Chevron, Hare had begun his project in 1968 – a year after a works assignment had briefly taken him to a Mississippi region animated by inequality and Civil Rights protests. After what was perhaps a shocking and formative experience he returned to a normal routine, using his lunch-breaks to move out of the workplace and escape the tensions and monotonies of a working life that was increasingly shaping his own physical and mental well being. The act of photography, it seemed, could temporarily assuage the nausea that Hare experienced each evening after returning from his job, a condition that even his doctors could not account for.
Walking around the periphery of the factory in 1968, Hare had been stopped by a local man, Orville England, who was keen to sell the photographer a plastic camera. He had been invited inside England’s home – a home that, years later, Hare himself would move into – to act as carer, as the old man’s life, blighted by work-related asbestos poisoning, eventually reached its difficult and inevitable end. After that early meeting, Hare had returned with a plate camera and photographed England again, a move that spurred him on to consciously photograph the rooms and residents of the modest houses within the proximity of his workplace. He would recognise lives lived out uncomfortably close to the pollution that hung in the air. He would note how security, prospects and plans were hindered by the economic fluctuations that shrank and expanded industries like lungs, causing uncertainty and for youthful ambitions to wane. The photographer, who would wake up scared at 5 am each morning, eventually left his job and – with his new partner, the psychotherapist Judy Wyatt – progressed a relationship based on a shared and deep pain, felt about what was wrong with the treatment of working people in the society they both were part of.
It’s not hard to imagine the challenge of gaining access into these homes – a process built upon trust and a nervous but determined momentum that Hare explains thoroughly in his own words – before setting up the camera to photograph. Hare’s photographic technique seems in part refined and in part abrupt or technically erratic, yet it’s always compelling. While some photographs are gently lit, with diffused light perfectly balancing interiors with the views of industrial plants that can be seen through windows, others are illuminated with the intrusion of a harsh and undisguised light. Flash plasters deep black shadows of inhabitants onto walls, creating rooms that are tight and discomforting. Elsewhere black, loosely pinned electric cables chase across walls, rendering power supplies as unstable and vulnerable. Men and women are often alone, held down underneath low grey ceilings. Family members are often sat back within the photograph, among the iconography of the wider family, the Kennedy government or religious devotion. Sometimes people are framed in doorways or wedged at the edges of a frame – occasionally they are asleep fully clothed and curled around exhausted children on still-made beds. The extreme coverage of a wide-angle lens shows complete rooms, as residents sit or stand, passively looking into their homes, surely unaware of their inclusion in the photographer’s frame.
For the first time, this new book reproduces a number of group portraits made between 1968 and 1972 – loosely structured, inclusive pictures of extended families who fill rooms by sitting on temporary chairs, which have been gathered – along with their children – and carried from other parts of the home. Working externally, Hare often photographed the sprawl of housing in the industrial belts of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and there are echoes of a wider history of the American economic landscape – and of the history of photography, as the cemetery Hare photographs in 1972 in Bethlehem borders the same housing that Walker Evans had photographed for Roy Stryker in 1935, as part of the FSA programme to document struggling workers who merited the country’s support, after the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
Hare recounts how, over his years of production, he felt obliged to “honour the reality of each person and their home” and speaks of a need to relate “the truth of people’s lives”. Yet this is not a measured, dispassionate process. In the book’s afterword, curator Jack von Euw suggests that Hare did not want the book to be about himself – but this somehow seems unavoidable, with the photographer struggling to escape from his own working conditions and inevitably affected by the lives he finds inside the America he concerns himself with. As he moved further from photography into counselling and support work, it’s clear that perhaps photography had its own conditions that the photographer wrestled with. A set of Hare’s photographs were bought by the Museum of Modern Art, yet he grew to hold a mistrust of such institutions, noting how their organisational structures closely resembled those he had been at odds with throughout his life as an engineer. Hare would later picket a San Francisco MoMA showing of Szarkowski’s Mirrors and Windows exhibition that included examples of his work, in a one-man protest over the show’s corporate sponsor.
Chauncey Hare’s work deserves to be understood alongside Walker Evans’ American Photographs or Nan Goldin’s first book, as a singular and articulate voice speaking of the condition of a real America – the same America that the poet Fred Voss, himself a factory machinist, would later describe as a people “as real as a Marshall’s eviction notice, or a pink termination slip”. This new book offers a serious, passionate and exhaustive statement about the nature of working peoples’ lives to a contemporary audience witnessing the largest economic downturn since the 1930s. While Hare has created an important and singular response to such conditions, and found a life beyond the circumstances that once constrained him, in doing so he has foregrounded questions around the role of the photographer and the possibility for photography to say something of worth about something we can no longer ignore.
by Chauncey Hare
Published by Steidl